The view from the table: facilitating public dialogue about the environment
As the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs implement their 25 Year Environment Plan (25YEP), they want to understand the public’s views and priorities on this issue. Today, World Environment Day offers a timely opportunity to reflect on the discussions we’ve led so far, in London, Hull and Chesterfield.
So far, we have engaged nearly 1000 people in large-scale public events as well as more in-depth, weekend-long events, each with around 30 members of the public. The format of the in-depth events is highly participative, with participants hearing from environmental and policy experts before discussing different challenges and possible solutions.
Regional environments, personal environments
The environment is a very broad topic, so each workshop began with participants sharing an object or picture that represented the environment to them. Many people brought disposable plastic – from plastic bags to cling film and plastic straws – to represent one of the biggest challenges currently facing the environment. Others brought pictures of major environmental challenges that have featured heavily in the news in recent months, such as the devastating Australian bushfires, the terrible winter floods experienced in parts of the UK, and the consequences of rising air pollution. Not all the objects represented challenges; in fact, the range was remarkable, from seeds grown in someone’s garden (shared out with other participants at the end of the weekend) to a piece of copper, a natural resource that was, until recently, extracted from the ground in the participant’s local area.
As the day continued, conversations began to move off in different directions, with each group exploring different concerns. Groups were asked to work together to identify priority issues and work together on solutions. In each location around the UK, the conversations evolved differently, with some people discussing key challenges in their area, such as the threat to a local park or the heightened risk of flooding. At the same time, a few recurring aspects of the different conversations struck me. Among these was the way issues were viewed through their connections, with participants coming back to the fact that environmental issues impact on one another. Similarly, conversations reflected the broad impacts of environmental challenges, taking the dialogues into areas such as health and wellbeing.
Participation and collaboration
One of the most striking aspects of all three weekends was the level of engagement among participants. We know public concern about the environment has grown in recent years: for example, data from the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy shows the number of people who are very concerned about climate change has increased from 23% in 2017 to 35% in 2020. Nevertheless, it was remarkable to see the energy participants brought to the activities even after taking in a wide range of information.
Bringing together a group of strangers from different backgrounds and with different life experiences, you can’t always be sure how the conversation will play out. But people were happy to listen to one another, engage and, occasionally, to constructively disagree. In coffee and lunch breaks, it was encouraging to hear people discussing the topics they had learnt about. Many participants reported back how much they had enjoyed hearing from the experts and discussing issues in this format. In some cases, it seemed that real friendships had been struck, with participants even swapping numbers at the end of the weekend.
Since the last event in early March, Covid-19 has turned lives upside down. Yet somewhat surprisingly, perhaps, the environment has continued to feature in discussions about the current situation: from the importance of access to green space for people’s mental health to the remarkable decline in air pollution.
With face-to-face fieldwork paused across the research community, we will continue this project through a mix of online methods, including videoconferencing workshops, a virtual postcard to capture participants priorities and visions for the 25YEP, and livestreaming events. Online deliberative research is a rapidly growing area of expertise at NatCen; with this project, the challenge will be to replicate the rapport – easily built around the workshop table – and the nuanced exchange of views that characterised the previous sessions exploring solutions to environmental issues.
It’s perhaps more important than ever to find out what matters to people and to have the public’s voice feeding into solutions to the environmental challenges we face today. And it may be that the unexpected disruption caused by the pandemic presents us with a rare opportunity to grasp some of these solutions.
Deliberative research is particularly valuable for providing insight into public attitudes to policy problems that are contested, complex or uncertain. Traditionally done face to face, we have also built proof of concept for taking deliberations online through our Future of Britain project.